Gathering and Going

So far off the road I never would have seen them, a group of twenty Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) caught the eye of the friend who’d accompanied me to the Brazoria Refuge last Sunday. “Cranes!” she exclaimed. “Turn around!” And so I did.

Too distant for clear images, and made somewhat dull by dim, foggy light, two of the birds’ primary field marks — their red crowns and the funny, feather-duster-like tail feathers called bustles — still were visible. If you enlarge the image, even their colorful eyes can be detected.

The cranes are winter visitors to Texas, arriving in October or November and generally departing by February or early March. Gregarious by nature, they can be found feeding in fields, pastures, and coastal marshes. Flock size varies from place to place; this group of twenty is typical of what I’ve seen in our area.

I didn’t expect to see cranes in flight, and wasn’t prepared for the suddenness of their departure. Still, one primary difference between Sandhill Cranes and Great Blue Herons became obvious as they rose above the trees: cranes fly with outstretched necks and legs, while the Great Blue Heron curls its head back and rests it on its body while in flight. As the group gathered more tightly in the sky, I was able to include all twenty birds in a photo.

Another difference helps to distinguish airborne herons and cranes. The Great Blue Heron’s wing beats are slow, and the bird rarely brings its wings above parallel. Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand, are given to sharp, snappy wing movements, and often raise their wings above their bodies.

I hear Sandhill Cranes far more often than I see them. Their calls in flight are  instantly recognizable, and unforgettable. I was lucky on this day not only to see the birds but to hear them as well, as they prepared to join others of their kind in their great migration.

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Clicking on any image will provide more detail.

A Surprising, but Seasonal, Survivor

On February 27, just one week after the last hard freeze warning was lifted for the Houston area and any remaining snow and ice had disappeared,  this hardy, ten-petal anemone (Anemone berlandieri) was blooming beside a Brazoria County road.

In normal years, the Anemone is one of our earliest signs of spring. Appearing in late January or early February, it blooms only through April or May. Despite its apparent delicacy and small size — an inch or inch-and-a-half in diameter —  it clearly can cope with sub-freezing temperatures and icy insults.

Like other anemones, this Texas native sometimes is called ‘windflower,’ although ‘thimble flower’ is equally common. The species epithet refers to Jean Louis Berlandier (c.1805-1851), a French botanist who studied plants in Mexico and Texas.

Berlandier joined the Mexican Boundary Commission in 1826 as a botanist and zoologist. In 1829, he settled in Matamoros, Mexico, where he served as a physician and pharmacist. Unfortunately, his life ended in 1851 when, while crossing the San Fernando River on horseback, unusually swift currents pulled him under, and he wasn’t able to survive.


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Cold Comforts

As Texas headed toward its deep freeze, with temperatures falling and ice beginning to build, most regular visitors to my bird feeders seemed as bemused as this white-winged dove.

Hidden away from the cold myself, I can’t say where the birds took shelter, but a few ‘regulars’ emerged from time to time to visit the feeders and forage on the ground beneath them.

  Northern Mockingbird

There was something for everyone. While the mockingbirds, robins, and wrens seemed to prefer dried mealworms, the doves and sparrows feasted on white millet.

Field Sparrow (?)

Shelled peanuts helped to sustain the squirrels (with occasional shelled pecans as a special treat). I was surprised that no bluejays came to snatch away peanuts, but I’m sure the squirrels were pleased to eat in peace.

Water was sought as often as food, and breaking ice in the water bowls was a bit of a chore. When the bowls began to freeze solid, I finally instituted a two-bowl system: bringing in the frozen water dish and substituting another while it thawed.

All of these photos were taken from my desk, which allowed for some different perspectives. The ‘Robin Red-Breast’ at the water  bowl is easy to identify, but I’m not sure I would have recognized the bird below as a robin without a second or third glance. 

Now that the snow is gone and the temperatures have warmed as much as fifty degrees, the birds seem to be as happy as we are. The sound of robins singing and conversing at dawn and dusk as they discuss their coming departure to the north warms my midwestern heart as surely as the sun is warming our bodies.


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